As high school seniors begin to make final decisions about their college destinations, there are many factors to consider.
Which school has the best academic reputation?
Which school has the best record of producing top-paying graduates?
What is the proximity to home?
Which school has the most viewed sorority rush week TikTok videos?
Which school has the most desirable majors?
Where does the university stand in the annual party school rankings?
But there is also the consideration of which school has the best athletic program. People who champion athletics at the college level say schools’ teams are the front porches to the universities.
There’s no question that a school becomes more attractive when its sports teams are performing well.
A perfect example of this is Alabama under Nick Saban.
Many people were outraged when Alabama lured Saban to Tuscaloosa with the offer of a $32 million contract for eight years. Compared to what coaches make today, that $4 million per year contract looks downright quaint.
It also looks like a bargain.
Alabama’s enrollment the day Saban arrived in 2007 was 25,580. Today, it’s 38,645, an increase of more than 50 percent. That increase can’t be solely attributed to football, but there’s no question that the nationwide visibility of the university has skyrocketed because of football.
So, when it comes to athletics, which university is the most attractive to students today? The answer is subjective.
Some kids are fans of water polo or tennis or lacrosse. Their answers would be different than someone who is a fan of golf or cross-country or rowing.
But the two sports that move the needle for most fans and potential students are football and men’s basketball.
There are a few schools that excel at both of those sports. In the latest Associated Press polls for both sports (the final poll for football and the basketball poll released the week of Jan. 20), seven schools make the cut in both. Four of those are in the top 15 in both. Only two are in the top 10 in each. And only Alabama is in the top 5 in each.
Here are the schools that made the cut, with their basketball and football rankings in parenthesis:
Alabama (4 in basketball, 5 in football)
Tennessee (9, 6)
UCLA (5, 21)
TCU (14, 2)
Kansas State (13, 14)
Texas (7, 25)
Clemson (19, 13)
After Alabama and Tennessee meet in Knoxville next month, those rankings at the top could change. But for now, Alabama is clearly on top of the pack.
Beyond football and men’s basketball, other sports can have a huge impact on university life, but only if the school has a program that is elite.
For instance, nobody cares if the Auburn swim team is ranked third or 13th in the SEC. It’s all the same because few people are going to pay attention if the team is just pretty good or pretty bad. But the Auburn gymnastics team has become a major story on campus. With the arrival of Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee, it’s now impossible to get a ticket to a meet at Neville Arena.
Alabama gymnastics has been that way for years, as has the Tide’s outstanding softball team.
Golf rises to the level of interest for the average fan only when someone like Justin Thomas comes through Tuscaloosa and leads the Tide to a national championship.
I went to college at the University of Montevallo at a time when volleyball matches were must-attend events.
But those are the exceptions. What matters to sports-loving students and those who are considering which school to attend is football and men’s basketball.
In that respect, Alabama is riding an all-time high. That success will undoubtedly lead to more visibility for the school and more interest from potential students.
That equals more money for the school, which makes contracts like the one signed by Saban seem less like an outrage and more like a bargain.